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Pa. Collective-Bargaining Law 'Erased the Unknown'

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Off and on for four months during the fall of 1991, teachers in the Westmont Hilltop school district in western Pennsylvania took advantage of the state's liberal public-sector-strike law to stage lightning-fast "selective'' strikes lasting only up to a few days.

Parents often would learn that their children's schools would be closed the next day when a message crossed the bottom of their television screens, forcing some to scramble for last-minute child care.

Teachers, too, would not know until late at night whether they would be walking the picket line or teaching a lesson in the morning.

As a result of a collective-bargaining law for school employees passed by the legislature last year, teachers' union leaders now are barred from using the irritating but frequently effective selective strikes.

They can still strike, though, as the Westmont Hilltop Education Association did when it walked out in October 1992 and stayed out for nearly three weeks.

Finally, in February, 24 months after negotiations began, a deal was struck for a five-year pact.

Interviews with state, school, and union leaders suggest that the Westmont Hilltop experience is a good example of the impact of Pennsylvania's new teacher-strike law.

The law, known as Act 88, has neither put an end to labor-management tensions nor eliminated strikes. The education community still wonders if it will produce timely settlements.

Nevertheless, many believe the act has begun to bring method and order to what had become an increasingly unruly and disruptive process of negotiating a contract.

"It may not be, as it was intended to be, a way to prevent strikes, but it is a constructive piece of legislation,'' said Sen. Chaka Fattah, the chairman of the Senate education committee.

"It erased the unknown,'' said George J. Cardone, the assistant superintendent for elementary and secondary education for the Altoona schools.

"It let everyone know these are the items on the table and this is the process we have to follow. It took away some doubt about what we would do next,'' said Mr. Cardone, whose district settled with its teachers last November.

The Nation's Strike Leader

After several fruitless tries, lawmakers last year were able to forge a compromise making changes in the state's 20-year-old law governing strikes by public-sector employees.

Known as Act 195, the law gave public-sector employees a wide berth to negotiate contracts and strike. (See Education Week, Oct. 30, 1991.) cw-1

Across the years, Pennsylvania teachers liberally exercised that right. The state frequently led the nation in the number of school strikes, although those figures did not necessarily reflect the number of teachers or students affected.

Public frustration over the strike issue--in particular the selective walkouts--forced lawmakers and educators to work out an agreement. School boards, some of which had called for a ban on strikes, dropped the more stringent measures, while unions accepted curbs in return for preserving the right to strike.

"We knew there was an enormous amount of pressure on state government from the public ... to see Act 195 changed,'' said Stephen R. Lindberg, the president of the Westmont Hilltop Education Association. "We needed to back some changes. We realized the alternatives. We did not want to lose the right to strike altogether.''

Act 88, which applies only to school employees, spells out deadlines for the parties to begin negotiations and to submit to fact finding and arbitration if they have not voluntarily done so. It also authorizes the state education department to step in if a strike jeopardizes the 180-day school year.

Settlements Also Delayed

Pennsylvania's 16 strikes this year still lead the nation.

Yet strikes are down from 35 last year, and the number trails walkouts in three of the four prior years, according to data from the National Education Association.

Education leaders say, however, that it is premature to declare that the new law is directly responsible for the slowdown in strike activity.

One factor they point to is that, because the bargaining cycle begins in January, the first full term under Act 88 has not yet run its course.

Therefore, all the strikes during the current school year were in districts in which bargaining began in 1992, said Curt Rose, the assistant executive director for educational-management services for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

"What it may have done is put some off to the beginning of the new school year,'' Mr. Rose said.

As strikes have gone down, moreover, so too have settlements.

"It was supposed to make settlements earlier, and it's not happening,'' said Bernard K. Murray, the assistant to the president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers. "We're slower this year than we've ever been.''

The Pennsylvania State Education Association has an unprecedented 43 locals that have been bargaining since January 1992.

"We've had fewer strikes since the inception of the act, but we've had fewer settlements,'' said Donald F. Morabito, the P.S.E.A.'s assistant executive director for government relations. "We're not sure what that's all about. It might just be stubborn school boards. It might just be we have a new act and that's muddying up the water.''

'In the Pressure Pot'

Many districts have found themselves caught between the two laws.

Mid Valley was one of them. Talks between the district and teachers under the old law began in early 1992. Just before Christmas, the teachers walked out. When they came back, they began bargaining under Act 88.

The timeline, which was meant "to put everyone in a pressure pot,'' noted James A. Kelly, the school board's solicitor, "immediately became meaningless.''

In the Penn Hills district, negotiations began in January 1992 under Act 195. Last summer, negotiators switched to Act 88, in the process losing some of the timelines.

"The only real difference I see is it permits the students to always get their 180 days of instruction in,'' said Joseph A. Saeli, the Penn Hills superintendent. "The old act permitted a strike to go on forever.''

But a clearer view of the effect of Act 88 may be provided by the Susquehanna district, where bargaining began under the new law.

Although an accord has not yet been reached, it may be close, said E. Kelly Simmons, the chief negotiator for the Susquehanna Township Education Association.

"Everything has been very compacted,'' Ms. Simmons said. "We negotiated a lot more frequently, we had a mediator on board a whole lot earlier, which I think helped a great deal. Then a lot of the posturing done previously was no longer effective.''

With the deadline, "there is a pressure there that was never there before,'' she said.

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